my name is phillip

This is my little corner of the internet

I like books, music, cooking, Gardening, mountaineering, and building embedded systems

Why Don't We Learn From History?

Why Don't We Learn From History?

Author: B. H. Liddell Hart
Rating: 10/10
Last Read: June 2014

Quick Summary: This short read covers Hart's opinion of how much we tend to misread history and how many lessons we fail to take away from it. The study of history provides experiences and lessons that an individual may not normally be able to draw from otherwise in life.  Hart shares some of the lessons he has learned, as well as provides his thoughts on the mindset needed to get the most out of historical lessons.

"Fools," said Bismarck, "say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people's experience."

My Highlights

Man seems to come into the this world with an inalterable belief that he knows best and that he can make others think as he does by force. --loc 87

People live by comfortable habit, we think and act more from habit than we do from reflection. Those who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions. --loc 115

Any successful institution, bureaucracy, bank, business, medical, legal protects itself from change to it own eventual destruction. ‘For where unification has been able to establish unity of ideas it has usually ended in uniformity, paralysing the growth of new ideas.’ It keeps doing what may or may not have at one time worked until it no longer works. --loc 120

"Fools," said Bismarck, "say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people's experience." --loc 136

Polybius. "There are two roads to the reformation for mankind, one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful . . . we should always look out for the latter, for thereby we can, without hurt to ourselves, gain a clearer view of the best course to pursue --loc 142

It helps us to realize that there are two forms of practical experience, direct and indirect and that, of the two, indirect practical experience may be the more valuable because infinitely wider. --loc 181

"History is universal experience," the experience not of another but of many others under manifold conditions. --loc 187

And from all that the historian is led to realize how greatly the causation of events on which the fate of nations depends is ruled not by balanced judgment but by momentary currents of feeling, as well as by personal considerations of a low kind. --loc 223

Many documents are written to deceive or conceal. Moreover, the struggles that go on behind the scenes, and largely determine the issue, are rarely recorded in documents. --loc 227

Exploration should be objective, but selection is subjective. Its subjectiveness can, and should be, controlled by scientific method and objectiveness. Too many people go to history merely in search of texts for their sermons instead of facts for analysis. But after analysis comes art, to bring out the meaning and to ensure it becomes known. --loc 274

Adaptation to changing conditions is the condition of survival. --loc 283

The path of truth is paved with critical doubt and lighted by the spirit of objective inquiry. To view any question subjectively is self-blinding. --loc 297

Faith matters so much to a soldier, in the stress of war, that military training inculcates a habit of unquestioning obedience which in turn fosters an unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing doctrine. --loc 305

While fighting is a most practical test of theory, it is a small part of soldiering; and there is far more in soldiering that tends to make men the slaves of a theory. --loc 306

Doubt is unnerving save to philosophic minds, and armies are not composed of philosophers, either at the top or at the bottom. --loc 309

Lung Ming Academy, a motto that headed each page of the books used there: "The student must first learn to approach the subject in a spirit of doubt." --loc 312

expressed in the eleventh-century teaching of Chang-Tsai: "If you can doubt at points where other people feel no impulse to doubt, then you are making progress." --loc 314

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. --loc 316

Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too "sacred" to think about. --loc 319

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man's life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard, which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. --loc 320

How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask "Is it true?" Yet unless that is a man's natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely. --loc 321

'Wahr ist was wirkt.' (Anything that works is true.) --loc 331

History that bears the qualification "official" carries with it a natural reservation; and the additional prefix "military" is apt to imply a double reservation. --loc 332

Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution; at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest. --loc 341

We learn from history that those who are disloyal to their own superiors are most prone to preach loyalty to their subordinates. Not many years ago there was a man who preached it so continually when in high position as to make it a catchword; that same man had been privately characterized by his chief, his colleague, and his assistant in earlier years as one who would swallow anything in order to get on. --loc 389

Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency. --loc 392

They are in a false relation to each other, and the loyalty which is then so much prized can be traced, if we probe deep enough, to an ultimate selfishness on either side. --loc 395

Truth may not be absolute, but it is certain that we are likely to come nearest to it if we search for it in a purely scientific spirit and analyse the facts with a complete detachment from all loyalties save that to truth itself. --loc 420

All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority. --loc 432

the tendency of all "governments" is to infringe the standards of decency and truth; this is inherent in their nature and hardly avoidable in their practice. --loc 446

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the "conspiracy for mutual inefficiency." --loc 450

There is always an "Inner Cabinet," but usually it has no official constitution and might be more aptly described as an "Intimate Cabinet." It is a fluid body. It may comprise those members of the actual Cabinet on whom the Prime Minister mainly relies or considers it essential to consult. But it may include men who have no ministerial position. For its constituent elements depend on the Prime Minister's judgment, and choice, of the men whose opinions are most helpful and stimulating to him. The essential condition of membership is intimacy, not status. --loc 499

"Once you've behaved like a knave, you must never behave like a fool." --loc 607

It is man's power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. --loc 628

the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority. --loc 629

Efficiency springs from enthusiasm, because this alone can develop a dynamic impulse. Enthusiasm is incompatible with compulsion, because it is essentially spontaneous. Compulsion is thus bound to deaden enthusiasm, because it dries up the source. The more an individual, or a nation, has been accustomed to freedom, the more deadening will be the effect of a change to compulsion. --loc 656

Moreover, every unwilling man is a germ carrier, spreading infection to an extent altogether disproportionate to the value of the service he is forced to contribute. --loc 665

As defined by Lord Lothian, in a letter to The Times in March 1938, it embodied the "allocation of every individual" to a particular form of service "whether in peace or in emergency." It is being freshly urged now as an "educational" measure. --loc 697

Such a system entails the suppression of individual judgment. It violates the cardinal principle of a free community: that there should be no restriction of individual freedom save where this is used for active interference with others' freedom. Our tradition of individual freedom is the slow-ripening fruit of centuries of effort. To surrender it within after fighting to defend it against dangers without would be a supremely ironical turn of our history. In respect of personal service, freedom means the right to be true to your convictions, to choose your course, and decide whether the cause is worth service and sacrifice. That is the difference between the free man and the state slave. --loc 699

Another false argument is that since conscription has long been the rule in the Continental countries, including those which remain democracies, we need not fear the effect of adopting --loc 714

Civilization is built on the practice of keeping promises. --loc 788

Any constructive effort and all human relations, personal, political, and commercial, depend on being able to depend on promises. --loc 789

I have come to think that accuracy, in the deepest sense, is the basic virtue, the foundation of understanding, supporting the promise of progress. The cause of most troubles can be traced to excess; the failure to check them to deficiency; their prevention lies in moderation. So in the case of troubles that develop from spoken or written communication, their cause can be traced to overstatement, their maintenance to understatement, while their prevention lies in exact statement. --loc 830

Sweeping judgments, malicious gossip, inaccurate statements which spread a misleading impression; these are symptoms of the moral and mental recklessness that gives rise to war. Studying their effect, one is led to see that the germs of war lie within ourselves, not in economics, politics, or religion as such. How can we hope to rid the world of war until we have cured ourselves of the originating causes? --loc 834

Where the two sides are too evenly matched to offer a reasonable chance of early success to either, the statesman is wise who can learn something from the psychology of strategy. It is an elementary principle of strategy that, if you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat as the quickest way of loosening his resistance. It should, equally, be a principle of policy, especially in war, to provide your opponent with a ladder by which he can climb down. --loc 917

War is only profitable if victory is quickly gained. Only an aggressor can hope to gain a quick victory. If he is frustrated, the war is bound to be long, and mutually ruinous, unless it is brought to an end by mutual agreement. --loc 923

Since an aggressor goes to war for gain, he is apt to be the more ready of the two sides to seek peace by agreement. The aggressed side is usually more inclined to seek vengeance through the pursuit of victory; even though all experience has shown that victory is a mirage in the desert created by a long war. --loc 925

The side that has suffered aggression would be unwise to bid for peace lest its bid be taken as a sign of weakness or fear. But it would be wise to listen to any bid that the enemy makes. --loc 929

The history of ancient Greece showed that, in a democracy, emotion dominates reason to a greater extent than in any other political system, thus giving freer rein to the passions which sweep a state into war and prevent it getting out at any point short of the exhaustion and destruction of one or other of the opposing sides. Democracy is a system which puts a break on preparation for war, aggressive or defensive, but it is not one that conduces to the limitation of warfare or the prospects of a good peace. No political system more easily becomes out of control when passions are aroused. These defects have been multiplied in modern democracies, since their great extension of size and their vast electorate produce a much larger volume of emotional pressure. --loc 935

It was because he really understood war that he became so good at securing peace. He was the least militaristic of soldiers and free from the lust of glory. It was because he saw the value of peace that he became so unbeatable in war. For he kept the end in view, instead of falling in love with the means. Unlike Napoleon, he was not infected by the romance of war, which generates illusions and self-deceptions. That was how Napoleon had failed and Wellington prevailed. --loc 951

Like most planning, unless of a mainly material kind, it breaks down through disregard of human nature. Worse still, the higher the hopes that are built on such a plan, the more likely that their collapse may precipitate war. --loc 984

There is no panacea for peace that can be written out in a formula like a doctor's prescription. But one can set down a series of practical points; elementary principles drawn from the sum of human experience in all times. Study war and learn from its history. Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face. Put yourself in his shoes so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil; nothing is so self-blinding. Cure yourself of two commonly fatal delusions: the idea of victory and the idea that war cannot be limited. --loc 986

An intellectual ought to realize the extent to which the world is shaped by human emotions, emotions uncontrolled by reason; his thinking must have been shallow, and his observation narrow, if he fails to realize that. --loc 997

History bears witness to the vital part that the "prophets" have played in human progress, which is evidence of the ultimate practical value of expressing unreservedly the truth as one sees it. Yet it also becomes clear that the acceptance and spreading of their vision has always depended on another class of men, "leaders" who had to be philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men's receptivity to it. Their effect has often depended as much on their own limitations in perceiving the truth as on their practical wisdom in proclaiming it. --loc 1015

The prophets must be stoned; that is their lot and the test of their self fulfilment. A leader who is stoned, however, may merely prove that he has failed in his function through a deficiency of wisdom or through confusing his function with that of a prophet. --loc 1019

Even among great scholars there is no more unhistorical fallacy than that, in order to command, you must learn to obey. A more temperamentally insubordinate lot than the outstanding soldiers and sailors of the past could scarcely be found in England one has only to think of Wolfe and Wellington, Nelson and Dundonald; in France, Napoleon's marshals in this respect at least were worthy of their master. --loc 1037

Robert E. Lee's conduct at West Point was so immaculate that he had not a single offence recorded against him, while he became known among his fellows as the "Marble Model." What a contrast this offers to the experience of Sherman and Grant, who were both often unbearably irked by the petty restrictions and often kicked over the traces. --loc 1040

For Sherman, even when looking back upon it when he had risen to be commanding general of the United States Army, sarcastically wrote: "Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications for office, and I suppose I was not found to excel in any of these." --loc 1043

A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculately to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time, as conquest has most often been achieved. Still less does it imply the development of the wide views necessary in a man who is not merely a troop commander but the strategic adviser of his Government. The wonderful thing about Lee's generalship is not his legendary genius but the way he rose above his handicaps, handicaps that were internal even more than external. --loc 1049

Beyond this is the doubt whether we should be able to eliminate it even if we had the strength of mind to take such a risk. For weaker minds will cling to this protection and by so doing spoil the possible effectiveness of non-resistance. Is there any way out of the dilemma? There is at least one solution that has yet to be tried; that the masters of force should be those who have mastered all desire to employ it. --loc 1057

That solution is an extension of what Bernard Shaw expressed in Major Barbara: that wars would continue until the makers of gunpowder became professors of Greek, and he here had Gilbert Murray in mind, or the professors of Greek became the makers of gunpowder. And this, in turn, was derived from Plato's conclusion that the affairs of mankind would never go right until either the rulers became philosophers or the philosophers became the rulers. --loc 1060

Can war be limited? Logic says, "No. War is the sphere of violence, and it would be illogical to hesitate in using any extreme of violence that can help you to win the war." History replies, "Such logic makes nonsense. You go to war to win the peace, not just for the sake of fighting. Extremes of violence may frustrate your purpose, so that victory becomes a boomerang. Moreover, it is a matter of historical fact that war has been limited in many ways." --loc 1068

Contact with the East, however, helped to foster the growth of chivalry in the West. That code, for all its faults, helped to humanise warfare by formalising it. --loc 1085

Another important influence was the growth of more formal and courteous manners in social life. This code of manners spread into the field of international relations. These two factors, reason and manners, saved civilization when it was on the verge of collapse. Men came to feel that behaviour mattered more than belief, and customs more than creeds, in making earthly life tolerable and human relations workable. --loc 1099

Sherman saw very clearly that the resisting power of a democracy depends even more on the strength of the people's will than on the strength of its armies. His strategy was ably fitted to fulfil the primary aim of his grand strategy. His unchecked march through the heart of the South, destroying its resources, was the most effective way to create and spread a sense of helplessness that would undermine the will to continue the war. --loc 1119

Another was the growth of a new theory of war which embodied all the most dangerous features of revolutionary and Napoleonic practice. That theory was evolved in Prussia by Clausewitz. Pursuing logic to the extreme, he argued that moderation had no place in war: "War is an act of violence pursued to the utmost." As his thinking proceeded he came to realize the fallacy of such logic. Unfortunately, he died before he could revise his writings and his disciples remembered only his extreme starting point. A further dangerous factor was also developing, the terrific scientific improvement in the weapons of war. --loc 1129

Indeed, in the destruction of cities, the record of World War II exceeds anything since the campaigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. --loc 1146

A wider and more profound treatment of the subject came, a century later, in T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His masterly formulation of the theory of guerrilla warfare focused on its offensive value and was the product of his combined experience and reflection during the Arab Revolt against the Turks, both as a struggle for independence and as part of the Allied campaign against Turkey. --loc 1194

Ascending the spiral, it can be seen that individual security increases with the growth of society, that local security increases when linked to a wider organization, that national security increases when nationalism decreases and would become much greater if each nation's claim to sovereignty were merged in a super-national body. Every step that science achieves in reducing space and time emphasizes the necessity of political integration and a common morality. The advent of the atomic era makes that development more vitally urgent. A movement of the spirit as well as of the mind is needed to attain --loc 1384

To face life with clear eyes, desirous to see the truth, and to come through it with clean hands, behaving with consideration for others, while achieving such conditions as enable a man to get the best out of life, is enough for ambition: and a high ambition. Only as a man progresses toward it does he realize what effort it entails and how large is the distance to go. --loc 1407

He may realize that the world is a jungle. But if he has seen that it could be better for anyone if the simple principles of decency and kindliness were generally applied, then he must in honesty try to practice these consistently and to live, personally, as if they were general. In other words, he must follow the light he has seen. --loc 1416

"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." --loc 1419

It's Too Late to Stop Now, Vol. 1

It's Too Late to Stop Now, Vol. 1

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer